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What Is Cataplexy?

From the AP Dictionary of Science and Technology and family interviews. This page is not intended as medical advice. Consult with your physician before undertaking any treatment or therapy.

Cataplexy is an abrupt temporary loss of voluntary muscular function and tone, evoked by an emotional stimulus such as laughter, pleasure, anger, or excitement.

Cataplexy occurs when a person experiences an emotional stimulation – hearing a good joke (laughter), taking a trip (excitement), having an argument (anger), being in a crowded store (stress), etc. The stimulation leads to a very rapid loss of voluntary muscle control – often the person will immediately collapse as a result. The collapse occurs because the person can no longer control their leg muscles to remain standing.

As soon as the stimulation is reduced, the person regains muscle control. They may appear a bit shaken (either from the fall or from the surprise of collapsing) but in a minute or two will be in full control.

Cataplexy itself is not a serious medical emergency. However, the rapidity of the collapse can be a danger if the person strikes their head while collapsing or lands awkwardly. Use of protective headgear can reduce the risk of injury and there is medication which can be prescribed to control cataplexy. Consult with your physician for diagnosis of this condition and to determine appropriate treatment.

Cataplexy can be confused with seizures, especially if you are not familiar with the differing symptoms. If you suspect cataplexy is occuring, look for the following signs:

  • it occurs rapidly
  • it occurs during times of emotional stimulation
  • the person recovers almost immediately
  • the person is responsive during the event

A seizure will occur during quiet times as well as periods of stimulation and generally has more warning signs. After a seizure, the person will recover more slowly and may not remember what happened.